A newly elected president of the United States has nearly three months to prepare to take office after election day. In the Seventh-day Adventist Church, a newly elected president takes office immediately.
For Artur A. Stele, the swiftness of his assumption to the office of president of the Euro-Asia Division (ESD) in 2000 left him shocked. Stele had leadership experience as a pastor, academic dean, and president at Zaoksky Adventist University in Russia, but he had never led an entity such as the ESD, which oversees the Adventist Church’s work over 11 time zones in Russia and other former Soviet republics.
“I was shocked,” Stele said. “I was young and inexperienced.”
But he received a lifeline shortly after his election at the General Conference Session in Toronto, Canada. Former General Conference (GC) president Neal C. Wilson spoke to him in an informal mentoring session that helped Stele to hit the ground running.
“He spent maybe 15 minutes, but I remember it up until now,” Stele, now a general vice president of the GC, the administrative body of the Adventist world church, said.
Recognizing the importance of mentorship in leadership, Stele and other Adventist leaders have made it a pillar in a proposed GC leadership development program that they enthusiastically affirmed during the second annual World Church Leadership Council, titled, “Growing Leaders for Mission,” February 9-10, 2022.
The initiative, when officially approved and voted, would be funded by the GC and implemented with the assistance of Andrews University’s Global Leadership Institute. The innovative program would seek to provide church leaders with three tracks for learning: (1) LeadLAB, a series of short-term, focused leadership development seminars and workshops offered to divisions that wish to participate; (2) LeadCONFERENCE, an annual leadership development conference that coincides with the denomination’s Annual Council; and (3) LeadMENTORS, an individualized, customized mentorship program provided to emerging leaders.
Training Leaders for Mission
GC president Ted N. C. Wilson emphasized that the purpose of the leadership development program was to advance the church’s mission of preparing people for Jesus’ return.
“The theme for the leadership development framework is growing leaders for mission,” he told the World Church Leadership Council, a Zoom videoconference gathering of about 80 leaders from the GC, the church’s 13 world divisions, its three attached fields, the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA), several universities, and other entities.
The mission focus was reiterated by GC treasurer and chief financial officer Paul Douglas, who, together with GC secretary Erton Köhler, is working closely with Wilson on the GC leadership development program.
“The ultimate objective is growing leaders for mission who will display the character of Christ,” Douglas said at the Zoom conference.
The LeadLAB component of the still-evolving program was piloted in 2021 in the South Pacific Division (SPD) and the Inter-European Division (EUD). LeadLAB has its roots in a proposal that was featured two years ago at a leadership conference in Cape Town, South Africa. Church leaders agreed at the 2020 Global Leadership Summitto establish a leadership institute based at the GC’s headquarters in Silver Spring, Maryland. The COVID-19 pandemic, however, disrupted those plans and led facilitators to opt for a largely online program.
Wilson, emphasizing that the program remains a work in progress, said it was optional, not mandatory, and was meant to augment and not replace existing leadership programs that divisions might have in place. The divisions can help to form the program as it develops, and their involvement in shaping it will be valued, he said.
“This is a collaborative work, since all will be involved in helping create something which will provide for ‘Growing Leaders for Mission,’ ” Wilson said later by e-mail.
It also is envisioned that other GC educational institutions such as the Adventist International Institute of Advanced Studies (AIIAS), Adventist University of Africa (AUA), and Loma Linda University Health (LLUH), as well as others, can be involved in the program.
In the Zoom meeting, Wilson presented a proposal in which the GC would provide “substantial funding” for the program through 2025, after which a decision would have to be made on how to proceed beyond that time period. He expressed hope that all 13 church divisions, as well as the attached Middle East and North Africa Union Mission, Chinese Union Mission, and the Israel Field would be able to participate from the near future through 2025.
Pilot Program Called a Success
Leaders of SPD and EUD voiced strong support for the leadership development program. Several hundred church leaders in the two divisions have participated in a pilot project of LeadLAB seminars over the past year.
“The South Pacific Division is very happy to be a trial, I guess a guinea pig,” SPD president Glenn Townend said. “The material that we have received so far has been absolutely excellent.”
He praised the LeadLAB program as “really spiritual, biblical, and practical,” adding, “We really like the direction that the General Conference is going, and it is great to be part of this.”
Mario Brito, president of EUD, said he had prayed for years to find good leaders, and he was in “seventh heaven” with the program and specifically the training offered by Andrews University’s Global Leadership Institute.
“We are delighted,” he said. “I thank the Lord because you are really interested in understanding our needs and helping us fulfill them.… This is an opportunity to grow in the image of Jesus Christ.… I thank the General Conference and Andrews.”
Erich Baumgartner, founding director of Andrews University’s Global Leadership Institute, said he was cheered by the pilot projects with the first two divisions and looked forward to expansion.
Many other division leaders offered wholehearted support for the program at the Zoom conference. G. Alexander Byant, president of the North American Division (NAD), and Si Young Kim, president of the Northern Asia-Pacific Division (NSD), called it a welcome enhancement to leadership programs already in place in their territories. Zoom participants also underscored the importance of leadership training in fulfilling the church’s mission.
“Leaders need to be trained to focus on mission,” said Guillermo E. Biaggi, the conference organizer and a general vice president at the GC. “Mission is so important to us.”
Randy Siebold, associate director of Andrews University’s Global Leadership Institute, added, “The ultimate achievement is to do what Christ said, ‘Go and disciple others.’ ”
The World Church Leadership Council, which was held for the first time amid the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021, covered various aspects of strategic thinking and planning with the aim of proclaiming the three angels’ messages with Holy Spirit power and seeing the latter rain take the gospel work to its conclusion. Speakers’ presentations took a closer look at mission-driven activity within Adventist Church organizations, self-evaluation and assessment techniques, future leadership development, the benefits of leadership training after elections, the beauty of mentoring younger leaders, the need to think strategically to achieve goals set out in the world church’s “I Will Go” plan, and encouragement in the Bible and Ellen White’s writings to unitedly complete the church’s mission.
A Path Forward
Expanding on the initial illustration at the beginning of this article, Artur Stele shared a conference presentation on the importance of training leaders immediately after elections, noting that the U.S. presidential election is held at the beginning of November every four years, and the president takes office on January 20 of the following year. During the interim, the new president has time to prepare. But, he said, the Adventist Church has no such gap, which left him initially anxious when he was elected ESD president in 2000.
Immediately after his election, Neal Wilson, father of Ted Wilson, had taken him aside and asked, “Artur, who do you see as secretary and treasurer of the division?”
“He asked for my understanding,” Stele said. “I said, ‘I need someone who knows the division. I don’t know it.’ ”
Stele proposed two names, and Wilson replied, “You are a very wise man. I wanted to recommend them myself.”
The brief interaction gave Stele the encouragement and the grounding that he needed to move forward.
Stele called for the church to do more to train leaders. “No one really advises you how to swim,” he said. “You just learn how to do it. But important strategical decisions have to be made in the very beginning.”
Reading from Ellen White’s Manuscript 149, 1902, he concluded, “If you think that men have not all the experience that you have, then forbear to expect of them all that the Lord expects of you. If they need instruction, try to instruct them as you have been instructed.”